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Why Well-Formed Nonsense Doesn’t Matter

I’d like to add one more point on the topic of my post “Computer Says B-Plus.” My modest suggestion was this: If a computer program trained on essays graded by humans could learn enough about the superficial form of academic prose to reliably assign suitable grades to newly presented essays (where “suitable” means “close to what a qualified human grader would have assigned”), that could put a useful tool in the hands of a diligent student who wanted to anonymous, private, and patient assessments…

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‘Tis Nieuw to Thee

On August 26, 1664, the urban ancestor of the town in which I live changed its name. The English arrived, only four years after the restoration of their own monarchy, and threw out the Dutch. New York was born, sort of.

That was 350 years ago. On August 25th, the day before the anniversary, The New York Times reported this:

“Finally, on Sept. 8, the largely defenseless settlement tolerated a swift and bloodless regime change: New Amsterdam was immediately renamed New York. It would evolve into…

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Solecizing Roget

MadLibsI’ve already confessed my love of Roget’s Thesaurus, so I am not simply going to pile on with the current wave of complaints about its popularity among students. This popularity, dubbed Rogeting by the British lecturer Chris Sadler, is apparently a side effect of rampant plagiarism and professors’ efforts to curb it by means of software like Turnitin.

The idea is simple, and familiar to me from the research essays we were assigned to write long ago, in seventh grade, on topics like “China” o…

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Why I’m Asking You Not to Use Laptops

At a teaching workshop last week, a new faculty member asked me how I felt about students using laptops in the classroom. I replied, “I ask students not to use laptops in my classroom—unless a student tells me they need or strongly prefer a laptop to take notes (for any reason), in which case we make that work.” She looked relieved to have this endorsement of a learning zone with fewer electronic distractions.

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I am far from…

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Won’t You Guess My Name?

Melek_tausI didn’t know I was named for the devil until I studied on an exchange program in Belgium. There, I would be introduced as “Mademoiselle Luci Férriss,” and the people who had begun stretching out their hands would recoil. “Lucifer!” they exclaimed more than once. “Why would your parents have saddled you with such a name?”

The answer, of course, is that my parents hadn’t thought they were naming me after the Prince of Darkness. The origin of my first name is the Latin word for light. The origin o…

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An Unexpected English Lesson

So I walk into the little dry cleaners near my office and these are the first words I hear:

“Where were you?  In bed with your—Polack!”

For a split second I’m stopped in my tracks.

I listened for a moment to the voice coming from some unidentified space between the full-length mirror and the ironing board. The invisible speaker was a woman, a familiar one at that, and boy was she angry.

The voice didn’t belong to the tailor and store manager, a warm Korean woman who beamed as she always does whe…

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Local Boy Makes Word?

431311Idea for a sitcom: The Big Lang. Theory. Premise is that a bunch of language nerds sit around and talk about their observations, obsessions, and pet peeves. Let’s say their names are Geoffrey, Lucy, Allan, and Ben, and that they’ve got some wacky neighbors, Bill, Anne, Ilan, and Rose. For the pilot episode,  one of the gang, scouring the databases and corpora, thinks she has found a use of a word published prior to the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary. But it turns out to come …

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LGBTQQ2IA

It continues to be an education. Back in the late 20th century, we learned (as we had kind of known all along) that people were not simply male or female but heterosexual or homosexual. The latter we learned to designate as gay, as opposed to straight. And then we learned to separate homosexuals by gender as gay or lesbian. So far, so good.

But then, as we investigated sexuality and gender identity more thoroughly, other types made themselves known. There were bisexuals, whose sexuality encompas…

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Computer Says B-Plus

The mouth-filling abuse of Kathleen Anderson’s post on automatic grading (“Betray Our Students for Publisher’s Profit?”) is such a delight to read that I’m almost sorry to confess that I disagree with her.

Anderson was approached by an educational publisher’s representative about a plan to (i) gather a corpus of several thousand student essays, (ii) hire experienced instructors to grade them, and then (iii) apply machine-learning techniques to train a computer program that will grade further ess…

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The Great Dog Robber

Among the celebrated actors who have died recently, James Garner deserves particular celebration for his charm, good humor, and versatility. If you’re nostalgic for what Southern California was really like in the 1970s, when real estate wasn’t yet sky high and there still were open spaces, look no further than the six seasons of The Rockford Files made back then. My excuse for celebrating him in Lingua Franca, however, is his use of an odd military term: dog robber.

Garner was cast as a dog robb…